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©2020 Global Center for Religious Research (GCRR)

(Part 1) Theologizing the Person of Christ in the Second Century: Angel Christology & Dual Natures

The consensus among critical scholars is that the post-Easter church reinterpreted its earlier encounters with Jesus by increasingly focusing on the theology of an incarnate Messiah. During the patristic era, modeling after the Pauline Christology of the New Testament, the tendency of different church factions was to narrow their focus onto Christ’s nature and relationship to God. Thus, as in Pauline Christology, the emphasis on Jesus’ preexistence took a new form as patristic authors contrasted Jesus with the demi-gods of paganism. Indeed, the Apostle Paul established a “cosmic christology,” which viewed Jesus as the originator, sustainer, and restorer of creation. The result was both a “Kyrios cult” and a "Logos" Christology in ancient Christianity, where the ancient church began applying the Septuagint term for God (“Lord”) to the person of Christ while emphasizing his descending and ascending activity.

In chapter two of his book, Christ in Christian Tradition, Aloys Grillmeier explores the first concentrated effort to theologize the person of Christ in the second century. During this period, the development of the canon played a significant role in forming a single Christ tradition, though this period did not have the theological sophistication that would develop later. The earliest church fathers acknowledged the mysterium Christi, the belief that God entered human history through the incarnation for salvific purposes. However, many of the initial christological expressions contradicted each other and required further clarification. The church’s first concern was the relationship of Jesus to the Father. Beginning with Jewish-Christian theology, proto-Ebionites remained loyal to Jewish liturgy and possessed a distinctive apocalyptic attitude. For them, Jesus replaced the Torah as the incarnation of God’s wisdom but was not truly God himself.


This eventually developed into “angel-christology,” which presented Jesus as a heavenly angel sent by God into the world. This terminology remained a common designation for Jesus until the fourth century, though it eventually characterized Jesus’ function rather than his nature. There were also cultural Christologies in the second century that appeared among the church’s laity. They emphasized Christ’s sanctifying role as Lord and King of the church, especially during periods of persecution by Rome. When discussing the myths and legends that developed around Christ, Grillmeier explains that a mythical understanding of the incarnation also appeared in early Christianity, typically in the form of apocryphal stories that tended to display Jesus as a dangerously omnipotent adolescent. There was also a stress on Jesus’ descent into hell and his exaltation at the right hand of the Father.


Grillmeier then discusses the early church’s reaction to heresies of the second century. He briefly explores the Ebionites, who viewed Jesus as an archangel, and the adoptionists, who viewed Jesus as a mere mortal chosen to be a mediator between God and humanity. The Docetists, on the other hand, attempted to alleviate the appearance of suffering in Christ by making Jesus only seem to be human. Likewise, the Christian form of Gnosticism also emphasized a spiritual-carnal dualism that made gnosis the way to salvation. Finally, Grillmeier presents another variant form of Christology in the expression of martyrs and apologists, who displayed a tremendous amount of Christocentric worship and devotion.


From here, Grillmeier treats particular Christian authors who had a major influence on the development of historic Christology. He starts with Clement of Rome, who emphasized Christ’s preexistence and role as high priest, and moves to Ignatius of Antioch, who placed an even greater stress on the tension of Jesus’ two natures: Logos and sarx. The apologists especially popularized this tension between the two natures. The author then discusses Justin martyr, who tried to prove the divinity of Christ while explaining that this was not a contradiction to monotheism. Through the influence of Stoicism and Middle Platonism, Justin tried to portray Christianity philosophically by stressing the Logos as a cosmological principle of the universe and Jesus as the embodiment of pure reason (“Logos spermatikos”).

Grillmeier then presents Melito of Sardis, whose struggle against Gnosticism required him to emphasize a God-man Christology, presenting Jesus as true God and true man who genuinely suffered on the cross. He helped lay the foundation for an incarnational Christology that expressed the completeness of Christ’s human nature. This is also the beginning of the church’s use of the term “nature” to describe Christ as the God-man, though the term itself had little philosophical or theological meaning. Finally, Irenaeus of Lyons discussed the incarnation in terms of the divine Logos taking man into himself. For Irenaeus, the incarnation was a unity of the Logos and flesh held together in tension.